Arms and the Man
nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
October 11, 2009
George Bernard Shaw's comedy Arms and the Man was one of his first commercial successes. Produced in 1894, it is set during the Serbo-Bulgarian War that ran from November 1885 to March 1886. The play is a satire on the concept of finding war a glorious notion, as well as a satire on falling romantically for someone based on a fantasy notion of love. According to my readings, the play is supposed to feel like a farce with an earnest purpose behind it, and here is where a well-intentioned production by Theater Ten Ten falls a bit flat.
The play begins with young Bulgarian Raina Petkoff (Tatiana Gomberg) in her bedroom. She is betrothed to war hero Sergius Saranoff (a hilarious Timothy John McDonough), whose photo she kisses. One evening, a Swiss soldier in the Serbian army, Captain Bluntschli (James Arden)—who later confesses to keeping his gun unloaded and carrying chocolates in his pocket—comes into her bedroom and threatens that she must hide him. He confesses, "I only joined the Serbian army because it was nearest to me." When things simmer down, Raina and her mother Catherine (a solid Ramona Floyd) sneak him out of the house.
When Sergius returns to Raina, he makes passes at her servant Louka, played as plucky and mischievous by Sheila Joon. Louka appears to have a romance going on with house servant Nicola (a very funny Scott Michael Morales in the kind of performance that radiates humor with every step). Bluntschli unexpectedly comes back, to the surprise of Raina and Katherine.
What ensues involves conflicting emotions about love, and class, and realizations of loving the person one is not supposed to love.
The problem here is that the performances don't seem to be under the same direction. For much of this play it did not feel like a comedy and since the whole "soldier in the bedroom" device has by now been seen by today's audiences so many times, it could have been handled in a much more silly way. The fact is that a soldier in a lady's bedroom is not something that's funny in real life, so without being played in an exaggeratedly funny style, it's actually serious. After having seen this sort of plot enough times, one senses that a romance will brew, but the scene itself could have set the tone for the piece by being played for more laughs.
Things perk up with the arrival of McDonough, who shows the strongest understanding of farcical style in the piece; and there is a more straightforward, equally funny style in the performance of Morales. When Morales as Nikola is told, "You have the soul of a servant," he responds with perfect light delivery, "Yes, that's the secret of success in service." A more consistent tone for the performances would have given the piece a helpful lift.